John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

John the Baptist was one of the most popular religious leaders in the time of Jesus. Widely viewed today as a kind of precursor to Jesus, he was selected to perform the work of Isaiah and go out into the wilderness and "prepare ye the ways of the Lord: make his paths straight." Said to be a cousin of Jesus, John the Baptist was a Jewish version of an ascetic holy man. He wore animal skins and camel leather and survived in the wilderness on nothing but locusts and honey. According to early Christian sources he was born and lived most of his early life in Ain Karim. He likely spent time with the Essenes.

John the Baptist is mentioned in the Gospels and by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. While the Bible paints John as an apocalyptic prophet and religious reformer, Josephus emphasizes John’s popularity with the people and role as a political agitator. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 10, 2021]

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Our knowledge of the figure of John the Baptist is very limited. We have only those references to him in the Christian gospels, where he stands alongside of Jesus. We also have references to him in the Jewish historian, Josephus, who was writing toward the end of the first century. So John the Baptist is clearly a very important figure of the time. He was a renowned kind of eccentric, it appears, from the way that Josephus describes him. But he seems to have this quality of a kind of prophetic figure ... one who was calling for change. So he is usually thought of as being off in the desert wearing unusual clothes ... a kind of ascetic, almost. But what he is really is a critic of society, of worldliness, who seems to be calling for a change in religious life. But I think we have to think of John the Baptist primarily as one who was calling for a return to an intensely Jewish piety ... to follow the way of the Lord ... to make oneself pure ... to be right with God. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

John the Baptist can also be thanked for Lent. Lent commemorates the forty days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. It has traditionally been a period of reflection and abstinence.

Websites and Resources: PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ ; Jesus Central ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ; Christianity BBC on Christianity ; Sacred Texts website ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible Biblical History: Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society

Historical John the Baptist

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John in the Desert by Domenico Veneziano
John the Baptist is one of the best historically attested figures in the New Testament. He was very popular and well known in his time Each of the four Gospels refers to him and his ministry and death. The Roman-era Jewish historian Josephus, briefly describes his teachings and death. It is said that it was John’s charisma and reputation that drew Jesus to the river Jordan to get baptized and kicked off Jesus’ ministry. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 9, 2019]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Taken together this is pretty good evidence that John the Baptist existed and baptized people, including Jesus. According to Josephus, John was a “good man who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue” who attracted “many people… in crowds” to himself. Herod executed John, Josephus says, because he “feared that the great influence John had over the masses might… enable him to raise a rebellion.” The fact that Herod Antipas was actually threatened by John and his political power suggests that he was a powerful, charismatic figure. And it’s a much more likely explanation for his death than the version in the New Testament in which John was executed after Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, asked the king for the head of John the Baptist. Some even thought that the subsequent destruction of Herod’s army in 37 A.D. was a punishment from God for killing John.

Over time, and in the grand scheme of Christian theology and tradition, Jesus—the incarnate second person of the trinity—is considerably more important and significant than John the Baptist. But at the time, in his own day, and to his contemporaries John the Baptist was clearly more famous than Jesus.

John the Baptist’s Lifestyle and Mission

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: What John the Baptist is most famous for is his distinctive lifestyle: he dressed in camel hair and lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey. The camel hair garment indicates that we should think of him as like a prophet, specifically Elijah. Elijah is described as a “hairy man” in the Bible but later interpreters tended to think that Elijah wore a hairy garment, instead. John’s diet seems to anticipate an ever-so-trendy interest in raw honey and insect protein, but as biblical scholar James Kelhoffer has argued, it’s probably supposed to make us think of him as a man of simplicity and purity as no one else would have handled his food for him. As strange as it might seem to us, early Christians thought of John the Baptist’s diet as something to emulate: there’s even an ancient Syriac tradition that goes further and argues that he was actually a vegetarian. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 9, 2019]

John the Baptist was, like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, interested in getting people to change their behavior. This is the context in which Jesus and John meet. In the earliest version of the story (the one in the Gospel of Mark), Jesus first meets John on the banks of the river Jordan at his baptism. It’s at this moment that God identifies Jesus as his son. Nothing in Mark’s version of events suggests that before Jesus encountered John, Jesus knew that he was the messiah. The Gospel of Mark actually starts here, with John the Baptist’s preaching.

Teachings of John the Baptist

From what can be ascertained from the Dead Sea Scrolls the teachings of John the Baptist were very similar to those of Jesus but according to the Bible he emphasized the vengeful aspects of God's teachings.

John called on people who had turned away from God to repent, He "baptized" Jews who had confessed their sins and bathed them in the Jordan River. Jesus's baptism by John marked the beginning of his career as a religious figure.

There were strong militant overtones to John the Baptist's teachings. He once proclaimed: "One mightier than I cometh — he shall baptize you in spirit and fire: his winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor, and gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire." When crowds grew too big at his gatherings he was arrested by Roman authorities.

Jesus baptism site on the River Jordan

Matthew 3:1-12 reads: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance.

John the Baptist and Baptism

Baptism is regarded as a command of Christ and the most important sacrament. It was done before Christ, and is associated with John Baptist who preceded Jesus. When Gentiles adopted Judaism they were baptized because they were impure, and then circumcised. Jesus was baptized by John Baptist before he launched his career as teacher and miracle worker. He ordered his disciples to baptize all people.

Baptism is sometimes viewed as a spiritual circumcision in which a person is initiated into the Christian community by performing an act that symbolizes the Covenant with God. “Ye were also circumcised with the putting of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism” (Colossians ii, 11-12). It is also viewed as means by which an individual becomes acquainted with the Holy Spirt (so “ye are a temple of God, and Spirit of God dwelleth in you, Corinthians xiii, 14).

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “ John the Baptist, of course, is known for having practiced baptism. But then, so did lots of other people. We hear of other groups around this time, besides the Sadducees and the Pharisees and Essenes. There are the obscure little groups. We only know their names, but one of them is called Morning Dippers, or Hemero-Baptists, they're called. This seems to refer to a group that practiced self-washing ... ritual washing as an act of purification. We also know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the Qumran community practiced ritual washing as an act of purification as well, to keep themselves pure before God. So, the idea of baptizing, or washing as a sign of purity seems to come, actually, out of the Temple practice itself. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“In terms of the Jesus tradition, then, to have Jesus either submit to baptism, or himself baptize others, suggests that we are part of a culture that was looking toward Temple purity as its ideal of religious life. By Temple purity, I mean the notion that one should be pure ... should be washed ... should be cleansed before you can go to the Temple and offer your sacrifices or your worship to God. So one of the concerns of the Temple, you see, and of the Priests who ran it, was that proper purity regulations be followed scrupulously. In some cases, however, it seems that these purity regulations, though, were made also a practice of kind ... what we might call personal piety among some Jewish groups. This seems to be what's going on in the Essene group. And it may also be what's reflected in the story of John, who practices baptism. And it seems to be that he calls for baptism as a sign of rededication or repurification of life in a typically Jewish way before God.”

See Baptism Under Sacraments

Jesus and John the Baptist

Baptism of Christ

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “When Jesus was about 30 years old, he waded into the Jordan River with the Jewish firebrand John the Baptist and, according to New Testament accounts, underwent a life-changing experience. Rising from the water, he saw the Spirit of God descend on him “like a dove” and heard the voice of God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The divine encounter launched Jesus on a preaching and healing mission that began in Galilee and ended, three years later, with his execution in Jerusalem. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

Professor John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University told PBS: “That Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is as certain as anything historians know about Jesus. It is somewhat clouded, however, in our present texts by the fact that later followers of Jesus thought it was not appropriate that the Messiah should be baptized, and apparently inferior, therefore, to John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized by John, and therefore he had to accept John's message, at least when he was being baptized, whether he changes is another question, later. But, he accepts it when he was being baptized, and John's message is, "God, very soon, imminently, any moment, is going to descend to eradicate the evil of this world in a sort of an apocalyptic consummation...." [Source:John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“One of the earliest statements we have... is a statement by Jesus that John is the greatest person ever born on earth, but the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. Now, it's a marvelously ambiguous statement. The first half lauds John to the heavens, the second puts the least person in the Kingdom.... [ahead of him] But that means exactly what I would expect. It means Jesus is changing his vision of God and the Kingdom of God from what he has taken from John. He's not really denigrating John, but he is saying the Kingdom of God is not exactly what John was teaching.

“The difference I see between John the Baptist and Jesus is, to use some fancy academic language that, John is an apocalyptic eschatologist. An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it's going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. One type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that's what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I'm going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That's, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It's demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it's the Kingdom on earth of God.”

Baptism of Jesus

There first real mention of Jesus as an adult takes place when he is his early 30s and he went to hear John the Baptist speak. John the Baptist, said to be Jesus’s cousin, had earlier predicted that the arrival of a Messiah was near. When he saw Jesus he recognized his power and believed he was the fulfillment of his prophecy.

John the Baptist and the Pharisees

According to some accounts Jesus was so moved by John’s speech that he decided to be baptized and was baptized by John the Baptist along with numerous sinners on the banks of the Jordan River. Explaining why the Son of God needed to be baptized, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book on Jesus, “The real novelty is the fact that he — Jesus — wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to putt off an old failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do?”

While Jesus was in the waters he had a deeply religious experience in which he heard a voice from Heaven that proclaimed he was the Son of God. According to Mark 1:10-11: “And at once, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending to him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved: my favor rests on you.”

The Ford of Hijlah, up the Jordan River a short distance from the Dead Sea, is the traditional place where Jesus was baptized. Kasar el Yehud is another place that claims to be the Jesus was baptized. In the area around it are the remains of dozens of churches and monasteries built by the Byzantines. Both the Ford of Hijlah and Kasar el Yehud are on the western side of the Jordan River in Israel and the West Bank. According to the Book of John, Jesus was baptized on the east side of the Jordan River. Wadi al-Kharrar, on the east bank of the Jordan River in Jordan, is where Jordanians claim Jesus was baptized.

Theological Issues Created by John the Baptist’s Baptism of Jesus

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast Just in principle, the baptism caused some problems for later Christian thinkers. The New Testament writers agree that John the Baptist was telling people that they needed to be baptized as a sign of their repentance for their sins. Jesus, according to Christian theology, never sinned. So why was he getting baptized? Early on the author of the Gospel of Matthew recognized the problem and emended his source (the Gospel of Mark) so that John asks Jesus “I need to be baptized by you, why do you come to me?.” Jesus’ response is a little vague, but later theologians explain that the only reason Jesus visits John the Baptist is to set an example for everyone else. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 9, 2019]

A related problem is that it’s not completely clear that John the Baptist and his followers are believers in Jesus. Yes, there is a story in which the imprisoned John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to find out if Jesus is the promised one. But that raises as many questions as it answers: did John the Baptist not know that Jesus was the Son of God at the baptism? And, if he did, why didn’t he and his followers become followers of Jesus? The Gospel of John addresses the issue so that John the Baptist explicitly proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, but in the other three (earlier) versions John the Baptist continues with his own ministry independently of Jesus.

For this reason, some scholars think that Jesus and John the Baptist were religious competitors. According to Acts of the Apostles, there were followers of John the Baptist who were preaching his message of baptism even after he had died. And some of his followers seem to have thought that Jesus might have been John the Baptist come to life. At one point, when Jesus asks the disciples who people think he is, they respond that some people think he is John the Baptist. Even Herod, the man responsible for having John the Baptist beheaded, was apparently a bit confused.

At least some of these questions can be resolved if you expand their relationship. According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist actually had known Jesus since childhood because they were related. Mary visited her relative Elizabeth (tradition calls her Mary’s cousin but the Bible just says “kinswoman”) while they were both pregnant and Elizabeth’s child “leapt” in the womb to encounter in utero Jesus. And this is how Luke deals with the John the Baptist ‘problem’: they weren’t rivals, they were relatives.

Salome and the Death of John the Baptist

John the Baptist's death, according to Josephus, was the result of whimsical exotic dancer named Salome not his religious activities. Salome’s mother Herodias (c. 15 BC-after 39 AD) was a Jewish princess of the Herodian Dynasty. After her husband died she married her uncle Herod Antipas, who had divorced his wife to marry her. John the Baptist denounced Herod Antipas for breaking Moses's commandments and was imprisoned.

Later, Salome danced before Herod Antipas and his guests on Herod’s birthday. Herod was so pleased with her dancing that he promised anything she wanted up to the value of half his kingdom, . At the urging of his her mother she said she wanted John the Baptist to be beheaded. Her wish was granted and John’s head was presented on a silver plate to Salome, who then gave the head to her mother.

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Caravaggio's Beheading of St. John the Baptist
Salome is not mentioned by name in the Bible. Matthew 14:6-11 reads: “But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased and fascinated Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked." Mark 6:22 reads: When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.”

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Arguably the most influential dance in history was Salome’s performance for her stepfather Herod Antipas at his birthday party. Though the biblical description is brief and gives no specifics, when we think of Salome we think of a beautiful young woman dancing seductively for an older man. Maybe you picture belly dancing, or perhaps you imagine something closer to exotic dance or stripping, but ...Ironically, however, this young dancer turned cultural icon may never have existed or graced the courtyard at Machaerus. In an article published in 2006, Brown University professor Ross Kraemer wrote that “numerous scholars concur that the banquet story, and thus the role of the daughter, at least is likely to be fictitious.” The Bible doesn’t even mention the name of Herodias’s daughter, it is Josephus who calls her Salome. Christian tradition doesn’t start calling her Salome until the fifth century. But despite her brief and arguably mythological turn in the Bible, Salome bends and sashays her way through European history to this day. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 10, 2021]

Why was John the Baptist Killed?

Herod was reportedly deeply overcome with remorse after the death of John the Baptist. When he first witnessed Jesus he was struck by the new prophet's similarity to John the Baptist. "It is John, whom I beheaded," Herod said. "He is risen from the dead." Matthew 14:6-11 reads: Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Both the authors of the Gospels and the historian Flavius Josephus agree that Herod Antipas, one of the sons of King Herod the Great, ordered the execution of John the Baptist. According to the New Testament it was Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas and Salome’s mother, who goaded the impressionable Salome into asking for John’s execution. Antipas was reluctant, but he was a man of his word and he had John the Baptist’s head was delivered to the girl on a platter. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 10, 2021]

Professor Attridge told PBS: “John was killed because he was critical of the contemporary Herodian ruler, Herod Antipas. All of the sources agree on that, both Josephus and the testimony of the gospels. Exactly what was involved in that critique is not entirely clear. The material in the gospels suggests that it had to do with Herod's marital practices and his personal morality. There may have been something more political involved in John's condemnation of Herod, insofar as Herod Antipas was tied in intimately with the Roman imperial authorities. In any case, John was executed by Herod as a troublemaker and a political upstart. Now, we don't know how that impacted Jesus, whether on the basis of the death of John he reconsidered the apocalyptic message that had come from John or whether he wanted to continue it and extend it. Both are possible. He never takes a direct stance on that.”

Historical Problems with John the Baptist

Salome with the head of John the Baptist by Titian

Professor Harold W. Attridge of Yale Divinity School told PBS: “We know both from the pages of the gospels and also from Josephus..., that John was an apocalyptic preacher. That is, someone who was proclaiming a message of judgment and issuing a call for repentance to his contemporaries, in the light of what he predicted to be the imminent intervention into human history by God to judge the good and the evil. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament, Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Jesus seems to have responded to that call...; the gospels then go on to say that Jesus was the one predicted by John. So one of the essential problems is the accuracy of that description of the relationship between the two. That is, John as the self-conscious and deliberate forerunner of Jesus. Most contemporary scholars would see that to be a construct developed by the early church to help explain the relationship between the two. Because for the early church it would have been something of an embarrassment to say that Jesus, who was in their minds superior to John the Baptist, had been baptized by him, and thereby proclaimed some sort of subordination to him, some sort of disciple relationship to him.”

What was the significance of baptism and was it unique to John? “There were many teachers around the time of Jesus who were baptizing; baptismal or washing rituals were also a part of Judaism that didn't have this kind of eschatological orientation, or prophetic orientation, that we associate with John the Baptist.... From the gospels and from the testimony in Josephus we can learn that John's baptism had something of a prophetic or eschatological orientation. It was a way of expressing repentance in the face of imminent judgment.

Influence of the Dancing Salome Story

Salome and John the Baptist became the subject of numerous famous pieces of artwork, literature, and film. The story was the subject of a Richard Straus opera and an Oscar Wilde play. The beheaded of John the Baptist was a popular subject of Renaissance painters.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Over the centuries Salome gained a reputation for being a “temptress.” The late antique bishop John Chrysostom used her to argue that “wherever there is a dance, the devil is also present.” Medieval artwork portrayed Salome (a mere teenager) both as a kind of acrobat and as one of a series of beautiful lascivious women who represent temptation and damnation for men. A sculpture from the north portal of the west façade of Rouen Cathedral shows her balanced in what yogis call pincha mayurasana (a handstand with an arched back and bent legs). [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 10, 2021]

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Udo Kultermann has written, that Salome came to embody European fantasies about the seductive powers of “exotic” foreign women. Gustav Flaubert’s description of Salome in his Herodias drew upon his travels in Egypt; he writes that “She danced like the princesses of India, like the Nubian women from the cataracts, like the Bacchantes of Libya. She bent over in every direction…opening wide her legs, without bending her knees, she bowed so low that her chin brushed the floor.” The Jewish Salome is here intermingled with caricatures of women from India, Nubia, and Libya. Culturally distinct practices of dance blended together to form muddled stereotype of foreign women.

Flaubert was just one of a score of 19th century artists who wrote, composed, or painted the story of Herodias’s Daughter. Arguably the most famous was Oscar Wilde’s one act play the Dance of the Seven Veils, a runaway international success in which Salome disrobes as she dances. Wilde’s Salome is not the compliant girl of the Gospels: instead of being manipulated by her mother, Salome is a woman scorned. Early in the play she pursues the imprisoned John the Baptist, insisting that she “will kiss [his] mouth” only to be repeatedly rebuffed. This rejection leads her to accept the predatory Herod Antipas’s offer. This Salome always knew what she wanted and, finally, having danced the dance of seven veils and received John’s head as a reward, she gets that kiss she wanted.

Veiling and unveiling had a long history that predates the Bible, but Wilde’s 19th century version and Richard Strauss’s sexually charged opera transformed this ancient religious practice into a kind of female liberation. The first soprano cast to play the lead in Strauss’s Salomé found the movements so sexualized that she refused to perform the dance; others were not so coy. Salome performances would scandalize the public at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, be performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and, as Kultermann shows, even inspired an early-20th century dance school that churned out 150 Salomes a month. The Salome craze even entered politics in the 1908 election, when a New York Times article used Salome to poke fun of William Jennings Bryan’s knee-jerk rejection of future president William Howard Taft’s political positions.

For some the craze was more like a disease than a fad. As Professor Marlis Schweitzer has written, ministers and doctors used the language of disease and pollution to denounce these scantily clad performances. Some, like Broadway actress Marie Cahill, wrote to President Roosevelt that Salomania would corrupt respectable women and children. Even so the craze could not be dampened. From cheap stripteases to the Moulin Rouge to the most celebrated opera houses and ballet companies in the world everyone wanted to see the Bible’s femme fatale dance. Even Mata Hari, the exotic dancer turned spy, got in on the act: in 1912 she gave a private performance for an aging Italian prince.

Archaeological Evidence of John the Baptist and Salome?

In 2004, British-Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson announced that he found a cave with a man-made pool, dated to the time of Christ, near Kibbutz Tzuba, and claimed it was used by John the Baptist and may even have where Jesus Christ himself was baptized. The claim is based on: 1) the traditional belief that John the Baptist was born a two kilometers from the cave; 2) pottery shards dated to the A.D. 1st century; 3) an incised drawing of stick figure with staff inside the cave though to be an icon of John; and 4) the presence of a Byzantine shrine honoring the site. Most scholars were skeptical of the claims which are nearly impossible to prove. Some described the claim as fiction.

In 2021, archaeologists working in Machaerus, Israel, claimed that had have identified the dance floor on which Salome danced. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: As one of three sons, Herod Antipas inherited only Galilee and Perea from his father. This region did not include the historic city of Jerusalem and, thus, Herod Antipas regularly ruled from Machaerus, a well defended fortress-palace 16 miles from the river Jordan. In a new book, Holy Land Archaeology on Either Side: Archaeological Essays in Honour of Eugenio Alliata, archeologist Győző Vörös argues that he has identified the courtyard where Herod’s birthday party took place. The courtyard contains a niche that, Vörös claims, once served as Herod Antipas’s throne. It was from this throne that Antipas oversaw the festivities and watched Salome dance. Vörös told the Jordan Times that the “historical sources are in full accordance with the archeological research” he produces in his work. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 10, 2021]

The theory is generating excitement in the archeological community. Even though they are impressed by the archeological work, not every scholar is completely persuaded by Vörös’ arguments. Speaking to Livescience Jodi Magness, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that while Vörös and his team have done good work, the niche seems a little small to be a throne. Similar sized niches found in other fortress palaces, she noted, have never been identified as potential thrones.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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